Sad Asian Girls- The Need for Asian American Female Activism

On March 8th, many of us, I hope, celebrated International Women’s Day. Whether that was through wearing red to show solidarity, refraining from work, or taking to the streets. It was a day that was made visible and globally connected through social media. One post that stood out in my Instagram feed was of my friend participating in protests in New York City with a poster that said “Sad Asian Girls”. Sad Asian Girls (SAG) is a team of two graphic design students at Rhode Island School of Design who work towards generating conversation about experience of Asian American women. While Asian American feminist groups have existed since the 1970’s, SAG is distinct in the way that it loudly and unabashedly takes on the stereotypes of Asian American women head on. Through a textual and archival analysis of the work by SAG, I am going to demonstrate how their work utilizes the mediums of social media, YouTube and performance art to create a new radical form of Asian American feminism. This is important because intersectionality is still largely lacking in both the Asian American and feminist movements.

Although their messages in challenging Asian American female stereotypes are familiar, the mediums in which SAG use, make their statements novel and unavoidable to their audience. Esther Fan and Olivia Park premiered their first work as SAG in 2015 through a work titled “Have You Eaten”. The YouTube video features alternating shots of Fan and Park sitting at a table silently eating their food while an off-screen voice, presumably their mothers’, criticizes everything from their weight to their love lives. This video makes visible the cultural differences that often dominate the relationships of Asian-American women and their first-generation parents. Although their video garnered tens of thousands of views, the video also received feedback about being limited to the East Asian experience, which motivated SAG to create more content that speaks to other Asian American women’s stories. Their subsequent work was a public installation of posters containing statements submitted by the online public, to which they asked Asian American women to finish the sentence “Asian Women Are Not ____”.  This not only made salient the microagressions that Asian American women experience but more importantly, created a collective movement around the intersectionality of the Asian American female identity.

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Their most recent work is a two-part performance art piece, titled “NOW MORE THAN EVER: PUT ASIAN FEMMES IN WHITE CUBES”. The first part of the performance involved a group of women wearing shirts with the work’s title printed on the back and standing in front of art displays at the MoMA. This work challenges art institutions as the gatekeepers of “high” culture and the resulting exclusion of Asian American female artists. Seen in context with the Guerilla Girls, a group of female activist artists that challenge discriminatory practices of art museums, we can see how SAG’s work is distinct in the feminist movement for its intersectional focus. By choosing performance art as the medium, SAG was able ground their work in their physical bodies and perform a powerful critique of art museums as white, male dominated spaces.

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Another innovative aspect of the way SAG reaches their audience is through their use of branding. Beginning with their name, the use of the word “sad” transcends multiple levels of identity, from women constantly being told to smile to the model minority myth. As a result, just with the name, SAG is already challenging stereotypes of Asian American women. Furthermore, by making SAG into a brand, Fan and Park make Asian American feminism consumable. On their website, people are able purchase SAG merchandise which range from t-shirts that say “Sad Asian Femmes” and “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” to art books they’ve curated that feature works from Asian female artists. This branding is then reinforced through their use of Instagram as a way to promote their merchandise and also display their art. In a society driven by consumerism, culture becomes an economic resource and by selling their own SAG branded merchandise, they are able to not only fund their own art-activism but also create a grassroots movement in which the community is investing in Asian American feminism.

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In reflecting on the question of what comes next for Asian American pop culture, I believe that intersectionality represented by SAG is what is needed most. While in class we have talked about Asian American men breaking stereotypes in different spheres of pop culture, from Bruce Lee to Kev Jumba, our discussions of Asian American women breaking stereotypes seem to have been limited to material culture and model maternity. This unanswered problem of Asian American female stereotypes is exemplified in the viral video of two small children crashing their father’s live interview on BBC and the audience assumption that the Asian woman in the video was a nanny instead of their mother. It becomes clear that the tropes of Asian American women stereotypes still have a strong hold on audience reception. As a result, I believe that there is still a need for Asian American female activism, as demonstrated through the work of SAG. Whether that is through challenging the hegemonic institution of the art world or using branding as a way to make the Asian American female experience visible, SAG represents a hopeful and intersectional focused future.

 

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